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All signs point to a big year for women on bikes

Posted by on March 8th, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Sexy Schwinns and Trektosterone Rides-13
Coming to a street near you.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

2012 is shaping up to be a big year for women on bikes.

Everywhere I turn I see signs of a growing recognition that there needs to be more women riding bikes in American cities and increasingly — both from the grassroots and on a national advocacy level — people are doing something about it. Given that women played a big role in cycling’s popularity in the late 1890s and early 1900s, this is a resurgence that is long overdue.

People on Bikes - Waterfront-26-26
A woman pedaling
in Waterfront Park
(Summer, 2011).

As someone who spends much of their day monitoring bike chatter on the Interwebs, reading bike magazines, and talking with sources from a variety of bike-oriented perspectives, I can report with absolute certainty that what we have going here is a bona fide trend (notice I say trend, not a fad).

I’ve noticed the emergence of new women’s voices like Constance Winters of the popular and well-written Lovely Bicycle blog (based in Somerville, Massachusetts) and Trisha and Dottie from Let’s Go Ride a Bike. On the West Coast there’s Melissa Balmer, the rising advocate in Long Beach behind the Women on Bikes SoCal initiative. Last month her group launched the ambitiously named, “Let’s Double the Number of Women & Girls Riding Bikes” project.

In Balmer’s hometown, just 15 percent of bike trips are made by women. She’s hoping one way to get more ladies on bikes is to show them how good they can look doing it. Her “dream for bicycle advocacy,” she wrote recently, “is to harness the power of fashion and style for our cause.” Call it the Copenhagen Cycle Chic advocacy strategy.

Elly and her all-wool outfit-1
Elly Blue in 2008

Another female voice that’s been around for years but is gaining strength for her written (and increasingly spoken) words is Elly Blue. Elly has written extensively on bicycling’s gender gap and she has churned out an impressive string of Taking the Lane zines which are dedicated to exploring cycling from a woman’s perspective. Interestingly, she shared on her blog today that it was her experience working with me on BikePortland that turned her into a “raging feminist.” This weekend Elly will talk up her projects and her favorite issues as a panelist at the Seattle Bike Expo.

Speaking of women in the bike publishing world, there’s Vancouver B.C.-based Momentum Magazine. Published by Tania Lo and Mia Kohut (and founded by another amazing woman, Amy Walker), the magazine’s fashion-focused content often features women on the cover. And now that cover will be seen by a lot more people: With newsstand distribution, Momentum will be arriving on your supermarket aisle and the shelf of your favorite bookstore starting this month.

March/April cover

I’ll pack the latest issue of Momentum when I shove off to Washington D.C. for the National Bike summit in a few weeks. Once I’m there, my itinerary includes first-ever National Women Cycling Forum (the keynote speaker is a women whose recent book chronicles women’s role in shaping the history of cycling, and of America).

From the hills of the Tour de France to the halls of our nation’s capitol and the aisles of your local market, 2012 is shaping up to be the year women hop back on the saddle.

— This Saturday, the City of Portland’s Bureau of Transportation and a local riding club called Girly Bikes will lead a a Women’s History Bike Ride.

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Comments
  • 9watts March 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Since you brought up the 1890s, I’d be curious if anyone could speak to how women ended up on bikes in large numbers back then? (I’m inferring this from what you said above.) Are there places around the world–cities, countries–where women bike in equal numbers to men today?

    I want everyone to enjoy biking, young, old, men, women, firm, infirm, but I at the same time I’ve also long been mystified by the evident disparity in numbers among those bicycling. (I am not a woman, and so no doubt miss the discouraging cues, and worse).

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    • Randall S. March 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm

      Yes, Amsterdam has a pretty much 50/50 gender split, as does Copenhagen.

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    • Scott March 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm

      In the decades surrounding the 1890′s, women past a certain age were un-marriable. This is definitely caste based too. So an un-married sister would follow her wedded sister and live in the rich household with very little to do. Not allowed to date, not low enough to do menial chores reserved for the help, not allowed to include in masculine endeavours such as hunting and equestrian pursuits, the bicycle was the one freedom allowed to these high society cast-offs.

      Hence, cycling became very popular because not only was it physical and fun, but it provided a real reason to get away from the gilded cage.

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      • Scott March 8, 2012 at 5:09 pm

        masculine should be in quotes *”masculine”

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      • john March 9, 2012 at 2:10 pm

        I thought it was more to do with saddling up or harnessing a big horse.

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  • Elly March 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Howdy! Thanks for the kind mention, Jonathan, and for providing an opportunity to experience some of the better & worse aspects of the bike world.

    9watts: There are a lot of good historical resources out there about the role bicycling played in the women’s lib movement in the other ’90s. As for today’s gender gap, this might be the most concise explanation I’ve heard as to why, on average, US women don’t have the same transportation choices as men: http://takingthelane.com/2011/12/09/cyclings-gender-gap-explained/

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  • daisy March 8, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    It’s great to see so many women on bikes writing and talking about women on bikes.

    The cycle chic for women thing worries me a bit–I hate the idea that, as women, what matters is how we look, even we’re on a bike. Sometimes it works to be cute on our bikes–especially the lucky gals who are generally cute anyway–but as someone who’s generally aiming for “not terribly ugly,” I hate feeling pressured to all of sudden be adorable eye candy when I’m bike commuting or out for a long road ride. Who looks cute in rain gear? Not many of us–and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, then, ride our bikes when we also do need to wear our rain gear.

    I hope cycle fashion draws in some women without alienating others.

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    • A.K. March 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm

      If it makes you feel any better, I’m a dude and I care greatly about how I look on my bike.

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    • Oliver March 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      Funny thing, fashion, what’s cool is always the stuff you haven’t bought yet, costs twice as much, and is always different 3 years from now.

      I wouldn’t get to worked up about it. Just look at the anti Lycra backlash, and that is not limited to women.

      “The quickest way to spot a tourist is to look for the ones dressed for the weather” -Scottish Proverb.

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  • wsbob March 8, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    “…but as someone who’s generally aiming for “not terribly ugly,” …” daisy

    Geez, that sounds like a serious case of low self esteem. If you fit the bike, your ride position is good, your legs are in reasonably good condition and working smoothly…you’re gonna look sexy and beautiful; and that’s about all you have to worry about.

    I don’t particularly want to say things that’ll fizzle the market for women’s bike apparel manufacturers, but the emphasis on cycle specific clothing for men and women both, doing more or less casual or commuter riding, is rather superficial, fashion market driven, self consciousness exploitation. Personally, I don’t think much of the tight clothing thing. Loose is just fine and allows plenty of room for imagination to fill in important details.

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    • daisy March 8, 2012 at 1:45 pm

      “Geez, that sounds like a serious case of low self esteem.”

      Or more like an attempt at humor from an extraordinarily confident woman.

      My legs are strong, and I can ride for miles and miles, but I tend to be pretty smelly and gross when I get there (just ask my kids! They tell me all the time!). I’m really glad I don’t have to worry about being cute–or sexy or beautiful– to anyone when I’m on my bike.

      Women like me–women with kids and a few extra pounds–are often the women least inclined to cycle. Marketing to get women on bikes can’t just be about getting the young, cute ones on bikes.

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    • 9watts March 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm

      How would you feel if someone said to you “wsbob, you’re gonna look sexy and beautiful on a bike; and that’s about all you have to worry about”?

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      • wsbob March 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm

        I don’t need for someone to tell me I look good on a bike, sexy, beautiful, etc, but I surely don’t mind the occasional compliment. Reality is, most guys are probably delighted if their girlfriend or wife is interested in riding with them, regardless of what the girls decide to wear or what they look like on the bike, as long as they’re comfortable.

        Daisy, if you’re just taking a humorous look at the narcissistic aspects of biking image, and are leaving the sweating to pushing the pedals and not over anxiety about whether people on the road are thinking you look good enough to ride…Good for you!!. See you on the road sometime.

        Just came back from a ride and saw four or five women on bikes. Four out the five could be described somewhat like you described yourself, having : “…a few extra pounds…”. Riding along like nobody’s business.

        Important point you raised about how bikes are marketed towards women, and who the target market consists of. Is the advertising really directed to just the “…the young, cute ones…”, or might it be, as is often the case with other types of advertising and also for example with casting in movies…to people that aspire to become, if not the unrealistic goal of younger(although with biking, this is achievable on certain levels.)…at least cuter than they feel they are, more beautiful, attractive.

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        • Scott March 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm

          You should re-read her post, and the subsequent response to her original post. You completely missed the point.

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          • wsbob March 9, 2012 at 12:15 am

            Scott…after I responded to her initial comment, daisy clarified her point. I read both your comments, and noticed you haven’t bothered to clarify yours, but the general impression you’ve made in them is that you don’t get either her point or mine.

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    • Scott March 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm

      wsbob’s post illustrates male perspective.

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    • wsbob March 9, 2012 at 12:15 am

      Using the basically the same words with a few extra added for grammatical sense, to take out the dyslexic element that may have unintentionally confused or mislead some readers, I’m going to revise part of what I wrote in my original comment:

      “…If you fit the bike, your ride position is good, your legs are in reasonably good condition and working smoothly, that’s about all you have to worry about. People are gonna find that you look sexy and beautiful. …”.

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      • Scott March 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

        Your point is not relevant because you do not know whether she fits her bike or not and she states that does not need you or anyone to validate the way she feels about herself, whether that validation is through fashion or through your bike fitting skills.

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        • wsbob March 9, 2012 at 11:00 am

          Au contraire, my point is very relevant…first of all, because I was speaking in general to the issue daisy raised, and not to daisy exclusively, and secondly, because there’s not a lot that looks dorkier than someone that doesn’t fit the bike they’re riding, and whose poor riding position is making them visibly uncomfortable and unhappy.

          Maybe more important than anything else, daisy seems to have a good sense of humor, putting her in good stead to enjoy biking whatever odds may present themselves.

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          • Scott March 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm

            Now your saying that people who can’t afford a bike fit/bike that fits are dorks?

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            • wsbob March 9, 2012 at 7:18 pm

              Nope. Not saying that.

              I’m saying that asking someone for help in understanding how to fit themselves to the bike they ride, and making the required simple adjustments will make riding a lot more comfortable and enjoyable, and avoid the situation of their looking funny, if they care about that sort of thing.

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              • Scott March 12, 2012 at 9:57 am

                **Scott. I have deleted this comment because it is a personal attack on wsbob which was brought to my attention by a reader. Please keep it productive and respectful. thanks — Jonathan**

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                • Scott March 12, 2012 at 4:57 pm

                  Is pointing out mysogyny on a thread related to women in cycling not constructive?

                  My comment that was deleted was not a personal attack in any way. In a discussion thread, one must be able to defend their point. A point can’t be defended if it is abandoned and restructured. This is called spinning. It is damage control. There is no shame in conceding a point when someone is wrong.

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                • wsbob March 12, 2012 at 7:02 pm

                  “Is pointing out mysogyny on a thread related to women in cycling not constructive? …” Scott

                  It’s not, if that’s what you were doing…which after your initial first or second responses in which you possibly had a legitimate reason for misunderstanding what I’d posted…you weren’t.

                  What you apparently commenced to do after your first, maybe second comment, was, to attempt to misconstrue, create something that wasn’t there, bait and badger.

                  At any rate, I’d say just forget about it and in future, try think a little more thoroughly through what you’re reading before jumping to and fixating on conclusions that have no basis in reality whatsoever; and then posting comments to that effect to a public forum. I never even got around to reading your deleted remarks, which is probably just as well.

                  Personally, I can’t think of anything that’s likely to do more, for the least expense, the least amount of time and effort, to generally improve riding conditions for everyone on the streets and roads than can be accomplished by more women deciding to be in traffic on bikes.

                  More women…and men on bikes that visibly could be the next door neighbors of people that are driving and riding, could go a huge ways towards having people move closer to the reality that the roads are not exclusively a place to navigate as though everyone were protected within the confines of a machine.

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  • cycler March 8, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    UMMM. I know the person who writes Lovely Bicycle and her name is NOT Constance Winters. She would prefer her name not be published, but I can confirm that it is not Constance Winters.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 8, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Thanks cycler,

      I asked for her name and that’s how she replied. I respect her desire to remain anonymous.

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    • April March 9, 2012 at 12:33 am

      That’s exactly what I was thinking. She goes by Velouria, near as I can tell, and Constance is what pops up on her emails but isn’t her legal name.

      I’m pretty sure she goes by the pseudonym mostly to keep her work and non-work lives separate.

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  • CarlB March 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    “Everywhere I turn I see signs of a growing recognition that there needs to be more women riding bikes…”

    I think it’s great that more women are riding bikes and that more women want to ride bikes, but why does there “need” to be more? It seems to me there only “needs” to be as many women riding bikes as want to. It would be great if even more women wanted to. Maybe what we “need” is changes in infrastructure and cultural attitudes that would lead to more women wanting to ride bikes. But those changes (and more women on bikes) probably will lead to even more men wanting to ride bikes as well. Would that be a bad thing? Nothing can guarantee equal numbers.

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  • cycler March 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I also think that your overview is remiss in ignoring Dottie and Trisha and their Let’s Go Ride a Bike, the collective ladies who write Change your Life, Ride a Bike, and Sarah Chan of Girls and Bikes, to mention a few of my daily reads. The last has recently been running a very interesting series (based on her thesis) called Road Rage, about the constructed perceptions of bicyclists in North America.

    The most recent in the series discussed how the growth in women’s bike blogs provides a wide variety of personal narratives which can help demystify and popularize bicycles as everyday transportation and thus help reduce the gender gap through a form of grassroots advocacy.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm

      cycler,

      Thanks for pointing out Let’s Go Ride a Bike! I’ve read their stuff in the past, I just didn’t think of them when writing this post.

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  • SteelSchwinnster54 March 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    This is a subject that I find very interesting(thank you Arte Johnson)!. Also, that other races are not as well represented.
    @Daisy; Just ride!
    @Elly; miss u much, your voice was magic!
    @cycler; is that you in those foster grants?

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  • Lovely Bicycle! March 8, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Thank you for the mention. Locally, I’ve seen an enormous increase in everyday female cyclists compared when I first began riding for transportation 3 years ago; it’s great.

    I second cycler’s mention of Let’s Go Ride a Bike. I’d say LGRAB is the singlemost influential blog for “plain clothed” women starting out with transportation cycling in North America.

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  • Stretchy March 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I hope this is true but, I’ll believe it when I see it.

    On a completely unrelated tangent, why do I notice the adjective “amazing” used to describe accomplished women more often than I see it used to describe men? Is it my own perception bias? Do we find it unnecessary to label men as “amazing”?

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  • dwainedibbly March 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    The point of the Cycle Chic Movement is not that a man or woman has to look good on a bike, but that you can ride a bike for normal, everyday transportation in normal, everyday clothing. When you do that, you can wear chic clothing and, as a by-product, look good.

    Let’s not forget copenhagenize.com and copenhagencyclechic.com

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    • spare_wheel March 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      when i go for a run, i put on sneakers and shorts. and when i go for a hike i often wear hiking boots. imo, clothing designed for biking makes the experience more pleasant. i wish that the “plain clothes” and “bicycle chic” movements spent less time sneering at lycra and more time advocating for woman-specific bike clothing. despite having shopped just about everywhere (including terry.com) i still have not found a water proof bike jacket that comes close to fitting my “cohabitant” well. this is a pathetic state of affairs.

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  • On My Bicycle March 8, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Don’t forget RidingPretty!! Influential, came along early (before all the rest) and incredibly fashionable– what more could you want from a female blogger! Plus she does The Tweed Ride Report!

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  • Kate March 8, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    A tiny tangent here, but this may be associated with the “women, biking, fashion” theme: Can we somehow re-define the “sweaty” issue for both women and men who are disinclined to commute by bike?

    The #1 reason I hear from peers who are reticent to take up the bike (aside from fear of cars) is, “I don’t like arriving somewhere all sweaty and gross.”

    I don’t really get it: as long as you shower regularly, who cares if you’re a little sweaty and flushed after you get to your destination? Or: just pack a quick change of clothes in a pannier, DONE!

    Is it just me, or is being sweaty for 15 minutes after you arrive at work a huge social faux pas?

    Seriously: this “I hate being sweaty” thing is probably the biggest reason (after fear of being hit by cars, natch) why more women AND men don’t commute or do errands by bike.

    These same people (okay, I am specifically thinking of my neighbors here, who are twenty-something health-care professionals) DRIVE to the gym to work out.

    We need a targeted ad campaign to reclaim the sweaty as good.

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    • 9watts March 8, 2012 at 9:47 pm

      Kate,
      well put, and thank you for saying so!

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    • wsbob March 9, 2012 at 1:08 am

      “…Is it just me, or is being sweaty for 15 minutes after you arrive at work a huge social faux pas? …” Kate

      In the example you’re proposing, how much and for how long people have been sweating? A ten or fifteen minute moderate exertion ride may not work up much sweat. No one would probably object, and the person riding might not be so sweaty they had to change clothes. Arrive at work 15 minutes early, allowing time to relax and and catch breath…no problem.

      Longer commute rides with more exertion involved may call the need for a wash and a change of clothes before sitting down to work.

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      • Kristen March 9, 2012 at 10:06 am

        Amount of sweat also depends on a person’s body– On a 10-15 minute ride, I’ll end up sweaty. That’s just how I roll. I know that for my 30-minute, 5-7 mile commute, I’ll end up really sweaty at the end. So I bring a change of clothes and luckily have a shower here at work. No problem.

        I also walk for exercise in the middle of the day (lunchtime walk, wakes me right up!), and usually end up a little sweaty at the end. That’s more like what WSBob and Kate are talking about, and I don’t worry about it. I don’t stink, and if I did I have deodorant here.

        But yeah, Kate’s right, we need to change the image of being even a little sweaty from gross to fit/healthy/not gross.

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      • lyle March 9, 2012 at 10:38 am

        The other part to that is if you’re in moderate (or worse) cardiovascular shape, the amount you sweat (and how quickly you’ll start sweating) will reduce sharply the better shape you’re in. At least that’s been my experience.

        Take someone who’s been commuting by car for however many years and who otherwise doesn’t run or exert themselves much, put them on a bike every morning and evening for 20 minutes each way, and the amountof sweat they’ll be putting out will be way less after two or three months.

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  • Tania March 8, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks for the love Jonathon! It is through the diversity of people, men, women, children and seniors riding on the streets that will show our nations that cycling can be an awesome part of the transportation solution. Thanks for this thoughtful post on International Women’s Day. I”m looking forward to seeing you at the National Bike Summit

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  • Mabsf March 9, 2012 at 8:42 am

    …and now that the fashion question is settled, can we also get some helmets that fit women with long hair, rain gear for larger women, bikes that commodate kid seats and panniers (oh gasp!)? We did come a long way, but there are still annoying gaps that make cycling harder for women.
    The other thing is that we are doing better with women, but where are our teenage girls?

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  • Robin Bylenga March 9, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Jonathan, Thank you for writing the article and bringing this movement to the forefront. And it is a movement in the cycling world. Almost two years ago (after years of research and planning), I cashed in my life savings to open the first women’s-specific bicycle shop in the Southeast (at the time, not sure there was another one in the country). When trying to find additional funding, there was virtually NO data to support the growth forecast for women in cycling. I went on my gut instincts. It has been inspiring to see the explosion of women in all aspects of the cycling world.

    Since I opened Pedal Chic, I have been blessed to meet many of the spectacular women you mentioned in your article. I would dare say that all of us just love riding our bicycles (whatever genre) and wish to help others rekindle the love for life on two wheels.
    What to wear (fashion), ease of access and cycle-friendly streets are all important issues for both genders when we ride – for whatever reason. Women do have different concerns and needs – which we address daily in our shop.

    My job is most rewarding when I see the smiles on the faces of those feeling the freedom only riding a bike can bring. Kudos to all that are helping make that happen!

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  • Maria Boustead March 12, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Thanks for the great article Jonathan! It is exciting to be a part of the growing swell of people who love biking for transportation in their respective cities and towns. Po Campo sure is enjoying the ride!

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  • Spiffy March 14, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    hooray for more women on bikes! I won’t consider dating anybody without a bike… c(:

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